Fiction - Winter 2007

Cowboys and Indians

By Louis Begley | December 1, 2006


Lord knows when I met Harry Livingston. Probably during my first winter in New York, right after college. In any case it was because of him that, a few years later, in 1962 or 1963, I enrolled in Niko’s gym, an establishment then located on the second floor of a tenement on East 45th Street, where Harry was a star student. On the ground floor there was an Italian restaurant, which has disappeared from that address and perhaps altogether from the world of commerce. Nothing will make me forget though how the smells of olive oil, garlic, and fish emanating from it mixed in the gym with the heavier odor of overheated bodies. Niko was not a name only. He existed in the form of a middleaged Latvian who spoke English fluently but with a heavy accent, neither clearly Slavic nor German. His facial features, bearing, and teaching habits led me to suspect that in the old country he had been a guard at a concentration camp. The method of gymnastics he taught consisted of work on the trapeze, parallel bars, and rings, and doing cartwheels, somersaults, handstands, and headstands. A session’s culminating point was an exercise that required you to fold your body into a figure Niko called the square. From that position you moved into a series of other contortions progressively more painful and less easily described. Some years later I was reminded of them when at La Mamma in New York I watched the performance of a young Tokyo-based butoh company, but, at the time that Niko put me through those contortions, their aesthetic potential escaped me utterly. I was far too preoccupied by the effort they required, and most often I was on the verge of being sick to my stomach, a consequence for me of hanging upside down. A master class followed the basic sessions I attended. Livingston naturally took part, but no one expected me to remain. Instead, I showered under a feeble stream of water that changed without warning from lukewarm to scalding hot and back again, held a handkerchief to my nose to filter out the worst of the stench, and crept away to breakfast at the luncheonette across the street. A family of Greeks ran it. They served good coffee, the kind that was hard to find in New York before it became the capital of cappuccino and latte. I had to struggle to keep down my breakfast, and for a good hour after I had arrived at the office, I couldn’t concentrate on my work. My office mate enjoyed telling me how green I looked about the gills and asking why I didn’t quit Niko’s. It was a good question, since this was the first gym I had set foot in since freshman year in college. My stock answer was that Niko would break my legs if I quit.

The real reason, which I wasn’t about to tell my nosy colleague, was the furious crush I had on Livingston’s wife, Rosie. I first went to Niko’s on a dare, because Livingston had ragged me about being soft. Soon afterward, however, he introduced me to his wife, and the effect on me was such that I declared myself a convert and almost never missed a morning session at the gym when Livingston was scheduled to attend. My purpose was to make sure he didn’t forget me and to give him every opportunity to ask me to a meal. From time to time he did, usually to Sunday lunch at their place in Connecticut, and then, during a few precious hours, I would experience the bliss of being with Rosie. I don’t know how else I would have remained in Livingston’s line of vision, there being nothing we had in common, except being friends with one married couple and having gone to the same college. Harry was not only older than I and married, he was also rich, he was a vice president at a big bank, and Rosie and he had children. Those were attributes of real grownups. By contrast, my relative poverty, unglamorous employment—I was a junior editor at a magazine that Livingston knew about but didn’t read—and celibate condition all relegated me to an undeveloped, intermediate status. I was a human caterpillar: a fuzzy, defenseless organism with an undefined future. There was a book I wanted to write, and a contract for it that had been more or less promised by the publisher. I wasn’t sure it would come through. Even if it did, I doubted that it would enhance my standing in Harry’s eyes, certainly not any time soon.

Sunday lunches at the Livingstons’, put together by Rosie, were delicious and quite simple. Sitting around the kitchen table, we ate pâté, cheese, salad, and fruit, and we drank Italian red wine. Afterward Rosie, the two boys—Simon who was eleven and Jay who was almost ten—and I walked in the woods that bordered on one side of the Livingstons’ property and a remote section of a state park on the other. It was rare for Harry to join us. In spite of his prowess at the gym, he seemed to tire easily and needed a nap after the meal. Drinking a good bit more than Rosie and I may have contributed to the fatigue. If he wasn’t going to lie down, he studied papers that had to do with his work at the bank, which was the financing of large commercial real-estate developments. From the appearance and heft of the documents he would haul out of his attaché case, and the way he spoke about the transactions, I could see that it was a complicated business.

They were made to be photographed for some ever-expanding family album, those Livingstons: each one of them tall, slender, and blond. Harry’s hair was the color of his thick, gold wedding band; Rosie and her sons had flaxen hair. I think that she found, quite rightly, that the boys’ looks were romantic. To accentuate that quality, she insisted that they wear their hair long—far longer than her own mop, which she combed with impatient and distracted movements of her fingers. Blue jeans had become the weekend uniform of people like the Livingstons. Rosie and the boys wore theirs threadbare, matched with white Brooks Brothers shirts, which, in Rosie’s case, I took to be Harry’s hand-me-downs. On our walks in the woods, during which we often played hide-and-seek, I would ask myself, when I glimpsed for the briefest of moments a streak of white among the tree trunks and green underbrush, whether I was in love with a woodland nymph or a very young faun. In fact, at a distance in that gloom, it was not easy to tell Simon apart from his mother. We also played a game that was part of Rosie’s family traditions: cowboys and Indians. The cowboys were to capture and scalp the Indians and then kill them. I expressed surprise that palefaces should engage in a practice that had given Indians such a bad name. The explanation Rosie offered, at which the boys giggled, was that this was how she and her cousins had always done it. Given our small number, there could be only one Indian. Invariably, it was Rosie, being by far the fleetest of foot. Simon and Jay were also faster than I. But my presence, according to Rosie, made the game fair, because I could give the boys tactical advice. She would take a five minutes’ head start, and then the hunt was on, always within a specified large perimeter. We had one hour in which to encircle Rosie or back her into a corner, and then to wrestle her to the ground. If the time limit was exceeded, she won and teased us relentlessly.

One Sunday, she was particularly hard to find. When at last I thought I had spotted her, I shouted to Simon, who ran toward her at top speed in as straight a line as possible, while Jay and I took off to the right and left, as required by the rules of engagement. The underbrush was thick. Scratched and out of breath, I finally got near to where Rosie was and saw that she and Simon were having a real no-holds-barred fight, but I did not see until I had arrived within a few paces from them that he had torn her shirt so that it hung open in the front. She had nothing under it. I turned my head away quite quickly, but not before I had seen her heartrending, little-girl’s breasts, with nipples like carmine berries. However unintentional, the pause was long enough for her to realize that I had looked at her. She blushed terribly.

All the way home, Rosie scolded Simon about her shirt and playing too rough. Not a word about my role in the incident was said by either of us then or while I drank the tea she had offered while we waited for Harry to take me back to the station or at any time afterward when we happened to meet. But, by the time I took my seat on the train, I understood that she was no longer my friend, although until then we had gotten along so well, and I had even begun to think that some greater form of intimacy was not impossible. I concluded at first that it was my awkward and stupid indiscretion that had angered her so far beyond reason. Remaining angry, being unwilling or unable to forgive, seemed to go naturally with the intransigence I had observed in her in the past and found so very attractive and endearing. Later, I began to wonder whether perhaps she thought that some sort of Rubicon had been crossed in those woods, so that it was, on the contrary, my subsequent silence and inaction that gave her offense. But what was I to have said or done, given the situation—such, at least, as I understood it? And was her understanding different? I am not sure that it matters. She was not someone who expected you to act rationally in all circumstances.

Some months later I received the advance for the book I had been hoping to write. There was some money left in my pocket even after I had paid various debts. After a session at Niko’s, I took leave of Harry Livingston and sailed for Europe. By and by thoughts of Rosie stopped tormenting me. When I returned to New York more than three years later, I heard that Harry had left the bank. His mother had died and, being as a result richer than ever, he went into partnership with a college classmate to invest in office buildings in the Southwest. This information came from the Livingstons’ country neighbors, the couple at whose city apartment I had first met them. They followed up by having me to dinner with him and Rosie. If she felt better disposed toward me, the change was imperceptible. In fact, she seemed to make a point of knowing nothing about my newly acquired modest renown. Then I left the country again. Long sojourns in Europe devoted to writing became a fixture of my existence, as did persistent backaches, which I was told were the consequence of a sedentary life, a predisposition to arthritis, and an unwillingness to exercise. Over the years, I passed through the hands of masseurs, acupuncturists, and orthopedists recommended by fellow sufferers on both continents. Their ministrations brought occasional relief, but those moments of grace were never long lasting. During an especially bad period, I returned to New York suffering from acute pain, probably aggravated by travel, that had spread from my back to my neck and left arm. I found myself next to Harry a few days later, leaning against the bar of our college club. Liquor was a painkiller that never failed me, and by and large I was better off when I was standing. He looked me over, shook his head, and commented that, for a man whose most recent book was supposed to be a success, I looked down at the mouth. I nodded and told him about my misery.

Come to Niko’s, he exclaimed, whacking me on the shoulder, right where it hurt the most, they’ll fix you up in no time.

You’re mad, I replied. In my condition, I could no more get on one of Niko’s trapezes than I could fly.

You don’t understand, he countered. There is now a group that shares Niko’s space. They specialize in exercises for dancers. Stretches, general conditioning, and that sort of thing. Quite a few injured ballerinas go there. They’re something to watch. Meet me at the gym the day after tomorrow, at the usual time.

I protested against the early hour.

That’s all right, he said, come at nine. I’ll have already washed and dressed by then and will introduce you around. They’ll be glad to be able to say that you’re a client.

I did as he said. Madame Olga, the presiding genius of the dancers’ gym, was an aged but still beautiful and limber Russian ballerina who had maintained intact a system of training invented by Vladimir, a Cossack ballet master from St. Petersburg, whose preferred student as well as perhaps common-law wife she had been after 1918, when he fled to Germany and later to France. Photographs of the great man dominated the walls of Olga’s part of the premises. In the earlier ones he appeared, arms akimbo, in a belted tunic, bouffant black pantaloons tucked into midcalf, soft boots, and a fur hat, or in leotards, arranging enraptured dancers in partnering positions in Swan Lake. Later in life, he could be seen showing off his muscles, clad only in a curious garment that I examined over and over in the hope of determining whether it was a jockstrap or a pair of old Jockey shorts. Perhaps those American staples were considered to be the height of chic in the dance and gymnastics precincts of Monte Carlo circa 1930. A group of perhaps ten of us, mostly women, worked out on mats or contraptions that I thought at first shared many of the characteristics of St. Lawrence’s grill, the bed of Procrustes, and Kafka’s harrow. Depending on the gravity or the interest of our case, we were supervised individually by Madame Olga herself, or by one of her former colleagues at the Ballets du Marquis de Cuevas, or by an apprentice. That last word described very young women who were either aspiring or already failed dancers reduced to teaching pupils like me in exchange for the use of the machines for their own excercise and Madame Olga’s instruction. If successful, they were eventually certified by Olga as authorized teachers of the great man’s precepts and technique, codified by her as the St. Petersburg Method. There was a comic side to the zeal with which Olga pursued her ministry and invoked the great man’s name, but I did not allow myself to be irreverent. She cured me, and the cure stuck for a long time.

I don’t remember whether, before leaving the country again, I invited Harry to lunch to thank him or only intended to do so. Given the disorganized nature of my existence in New York at that time—I was living in a borrowed apartment on lower Fifth Avenue but saw a good deal of a lady who lived uptown and made difficulties about spending the night at my place—the latter hypothesis is more likely. The lady and I broke up opportunely just before my departure. I settled in Rome, off the Piazza del Popolo, in a street known for artists’ ateliers. Most probably, I sent Harry a card with my new address and telephone number because, some years later, he called to announce an impending visit. All four of them were coming, and they wanted to see me. Of course, I invited them for a drink at my place to be followed by dinner at the restaurant in the Piazza, which was famous for its boiled beef. It turned out to be an easy and festive occasion, much of it given over to Harry’s discoursing about his firm’s investments and the boys’ successes at college. Rosie broke in from time to time to chirp rather impersonally about their new garden. At the end of the meal, I failed in my effort to prevent Harry from seizing the bill from the waiter.

I heard nothing more about them until the day when I came upon a short article in the Herald Tribune about Harry and his partner Greg Williams having been forced into personal bankruptcy. It was a sad story, typical of the time: they had borrowed and built too much in the Southwest. Suddenly, the oil and gas boom was over, and the rental market turned against them. I checked with the Livingstons’ country neighbors, who were still our only link. They said that in fact it was possible that a bankruptcy would be avoided, but Harry stood to lose everything that wasn’t locked up in the family trusts. Rosie’s own money, to the extent she hadn’t put it into the business, was, of course, safe. The big question was how much she had invested in the business and what would happen to the house in Connecticut. The apartment in New York would surely have to be sold. A wave of genuine sadness overcame me. I called in succession Harry’s office, where I constantly got a busy signal, and then the private numbers in the city and in the country. A recorded announcement told me that the phones had been disconnected at the request of the subscriber. The new numbers were unlisted. Thereupon, I sat down and wrote what in my mind I called a letter of condolence, addressing it, after considerable hesitation to Rosie. The next day I wrote a shorter note to Harry. I didn’t receive an answer from either, a failing for which I chose to blame the Italian mail service.

When in the spring of 2002 I returned to New York with the intention of making it once again my home, I had reached the age at which, for my beloved Balzac, a man was undeniably un vieillard. More or less vigorous, but un vieillard quand même. The view taken in the new millennium differed: it seemed that old age and decrepitude had been indefinitely postponed, perhaps even abolished, so that one stepped from a state of outwardly perfect preservation directly into death. Were not some of my contemporaries running in marathons? Others were busy siring children. In smaller numbers they were surely doing both. Whether the new fathers expected to be around for the children’s graduation from high school, let alone college, was an interesting question. For all I knew, it was a subject treated in prenuptial agreements—if the aspiring ancient father had the means to justify the expense of preparing such a document. I did not think that, left to myself, I was likely to find the fountain of youth. So, when my nemesis, pain in the lower back, returned to torment me, I remembered Niko’s gym, my miraculous cure, and the claim Olga had so often made for the St. Petersburg Method that an hour session, taken three times a week, will give you a new body. My ambition was more modest: I wanted to be free of pain. Although my love affair with the city continued, and I was proud of the pluck shown by New Yorkers in the face of the dismasting of Manhattan, so far as my personal life was concerned, I might as well have been living in a desert. I felt lonely. Many of my friends had moved away in search of a gentler climate and lower cost of living. Some were practicing arts and crafts in places like Santa Fe. Too many had died. Because of my long absences from the city, I had lost touch with others.

It took me a while to get around to it, but finally I made the decision: I would return to the old gym. Right away, I ran into an obstacle. The telephone number I had in my address book was no longer in service. In the telephone directory there was no trace of Niko’s gym or Olga’s or of any of the variants on those names that I could think of. Piqued, not ready to give in, I even thought briefly of finding Harry Livingston and asking him for a lead, but the idea seemed grotesque. Besides, I didn’t know where to look for him either. Instead, I scoured listings for gyms and similar establishments in the Yellow Pages, and finally came upon the Riga Health and Fitness Club on West 56th Street. Didn’t all Latvians know each other? I reasoned that whoever ran that outfit would direct me to Niko—unless Niko too was dead or had gone out of business or was a competitor so formidable that access to him should not be facilitated.

The voice of the man who answered the telephone could have been Niko’s, if with age Niko’s accent had become even thicker, which sometimes does happen. It turned out, however, that I was speaking to Karl, a nephew to whom Niko had sold the business upon retiring. The gym was carrying on as it always had. I shuddered at the memory of those trapezes and inquired about Niko’s health. Very good, Karl informed me. He still teaches. At a big club in Vero Beach. I shifted the conversation to Madame Olga. Olga! Karl laughed. She’d be a hundred if she were alive. But don’t worry, the school continues right at my place. We teach the Russky method. Come and check it out.

I took him up on the offer. As I looked around the anteroom of the new premises, having already written a large check to pay for a series of lessons, I realized that I too was being appraised by a group of young women, in various stages of athletic undress, lounging on two sofas , chewing apples, and drinking colored liquids from plastic bottles. Could these be, I asked myself hopefully, Demoiselles d’Avignon, class of 2002? They turned out to be a new generation of apprentice teachers of the St. Petersburg Method. And the burly men leaning against the wall, warily flexing their biceps, were not bouncers or enforcers; they were Karl’s trainers, masters of the trapeze, the parallel bars, the headstand, and the square.

My hope that one of the nubile apprentices would undertake the renewal of my body was not fulfilled. As a client who had known Olga herself, and worked under her direction, I had value as a link in the apostolic succession going all the way back to the old man, and I was placed in the care of Lola, a grim-looking lady. I had never seen her before, but I was assured that she had been Olga’s comrade-in-arms and had been lucky enough to know Vladimir himself. As I pondered this development during my first session, which pushed me to the limits of endurance, I found a measure of consolation in the vision on my immediate left. Also exercising on a machine was a tall, brown-haired young woman in a red leotard, going through the drill without a supervisor. Sneaking glances at her as often as I could, I took in her strong body and face, which struck me as bold. The grace of her gestures and the flexibility of her limbs led me to think she might well be a dancer. I looked at her feet for confirmation but, long and narrow—and deliciously dirty—they ended in little toes that had never known the indignity of hours spent on pointe. Another detail completed my enchantment: the red of her toenail varnish swore with the red of her leotard. How lucky, I said to myself, how lucky that, alone among the clients, teachers, and apprentices, she is barefoot. Flaunting her disregard of rules!

Until I was quite sure that I had established the pattern of her attendance—Monday, Wed­nesday, and Friday, always at the same hour—I went to the gym every day so as not to miss her. Afterward, I began to plan my week around being always on the machine next to hers, at her hour, on every one of her days. There were occasional disappointments, when inexplicably she wore ballet slippers or socks. They paled in comparison with unexpected gratifications: the times when she had no varnish on her toenails or the varnish was chipped or I saw the skin of her thigh through a seam of her leotard that had come undone. Once, when she was working with a teacher, I actually heard her speak. A deep voice with a flat, matter-of-fact accent that revealed nothing. One day, I lingered after she had finished her session so that I could ask Lola with which company my neighbor danced. It had occurred to me that she might be doing modern dance, which would account for the perfection of her toes. Perhaps I could see her perform. What company Kay dances with? Lola answered with a puzzled air. Yes, I insisted, isn’t she a dancer? What a funny idea, Lola replied. She works in public relations. I’ll tell her you thought she was a dancer. She’ll be really flattered.

I didn’t ask Lola to forbear, and I suppose she must have carried out her plan because, at the next session Kay, for the first time, smiled at me. I grinned back and looked at her feet. She had painted her toes silver. Was it a sign? That is how I took it and determined to intercept not that day but very soon. I would invite her for a drink. If she turned me down, which I feared was likely, I would switch to days on which she didn’t come to the gym, thereby also escaping from Lola. Perhaps one of the young apprentices with a bare midriff would consent to take over my rejuvenation. On no account, however, would I give up the gym. I made another resolution too: I would after all look up Harry Livingston. It would be interesting to see what new games time had played with Rosie and him and those two boys who would now be older than I was when I first met them.

I never got around to asking Kay out. But that very afternoon I called the Livingstons’ apartment—they were once again listed in the telephone directory—and, hearing that Harry was in Canada, where he looked after a family business that had survived the collapse of his racier activities, I arranged to have dinner with Rosie.

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